In Mae’s story—as in so many other stories about women and communications technologies—women are cast as consumers, rather than agents; controlled, rather than controlling. Men—in The Circle, the company’s CEOs and founders—do the controlling, extending their will through the tools they invent. This narrative is a powerful one, reaching across centuries of depictions of women in fiction and film. Before the internet, it was apparent in links drawn between women and books. In The Sound of Music, Rolf, the teenage Austrian courier, sings to Liesl von Trapp, “Your life, little girl, is an empty page that men will want to write on.” Liesl, 16 going on 17, echoes, “…to write on.”
The oppressive tale in The Circle isn’t the only script available for women in technology, but it gained prominence in the 18th and 19th centuries with the rise of the novel and mass reading (and viewing) publics. Before this time, what possibilities does history offer for getting outside this story? How can the past be used to reimagine women’s technological agency?
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Two women, Margery Kempe and Margaret Cavendish, stand out for mastering the men in their lives, taking control of their stories through their use of the technologies of writing and printing. Kempe, a medieval pilgrim, is the author of the earliest surviving autobiography in English. Cavendish, a 17th–century writer, published serious philosophical commentary as well as utopian fiction satirizing the work of the largely male scientific community.
Transported by spiritual ecstasy, Kempe cried everywhere she went: at home in a market town in northeast England; in Canterbury Cathedral; in Rome, with various priests and noble ladies. When she wasn’t crying, she bargained with her husband over when he would release her from their marital vows (sex interfered with sanctity). He finally agreed, over a bottle of beer, to set her free if she would pay all his debts before she went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
Though she found herself mocked and scorned, especially for her constant crying, Kempe formed a plan. Feeling compelled by her God, she was determined, above all else, to get the story of her life down on paper. But there was a problem: She didn’t know how to write. In her time, writing was a technical skill, largely the province of monks, priests, nuns, and professional scribes, along with a few university educated doctors and lawyers. Even literate lay elites dictated their messages to a scribe.
Undaunted, Kempe found a man who knew her well, probably her son, to act as her scribe. He began her book, writing in a mix of German and English. Unfortunately, he died before he could finish the job. So Kempe turned to a priest, who could make neither heads nor tails of such an incomplete linguistic mishmash and sent her away. Next she went to a third man, an acquaintance of the first, familiar with his hand writing. She offered him some money, but the story stymied him, too.